Putting feet on the street for American journalism -- is it time for Report for America, or News AmeriCorps?

Thousands of U.S. journalists have been laid off or have left mainstream media outlets over the last several years.  How do we put feet back on the street in the service of civic journalism? 

One idea is "Report for America," a proposal by the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute (and this writer) to the Knight News Challenge competition.  Another proposal to Knight: "Report for Democracy." The general idea of finding a way to fund college graduates, retirees, career changers or sabatical observers in a volunteer journalism effort is not new. For example, Andria Krewson proposed something similar in 2007. 

A year ago, The Associated Press reported that Teach for America was getting applications at the rate of 14,000 per year. How many would a ""Report for America" receive? Funding might come from a combination of national foundations and local foundations and individuals. Not out of the question, in my view, is that there could be some government funding in the mix, as is being tried in the Netherlands.

Martin Langeveld, an invited commentator on Columbia University's  Downie/Schudson report: "The Reconstruction of American Journalism," wrote: "With Teach for America as a model, could the nation (or better yet, a well-heeled foundation) fund one-year, post-college fellowships for young reporters who might apprentice at mainstream or new media organizations with the only requirement that they produce works dealing with important civic issues?"

Now come Robert McChesney and John Nichols, co-founders of the media-reform group FreePress.net, in this excerpt from pages 169-170 of their just-published book,  "The Death and Life of American
," copyright 2010,  New York, Nation Books: 

"The second policy measure we recommend to stop the bleeding is the establishment of a "journalism" division of AmeriCorps, the federal program that places young people with nonprofits to get training and do public-service work. The point here is to ensure that young people who love journalism will stay in the field, despite all the dire .news. of the moment and limited opportunities. As Oliver Staley noted, after reviewing the Harvard Crimson staff in 2009, just three of the 16 graduating seniors who were on the Crimson executive board are seeking positions in journalism.

"We know from personal experience the situation is the same on almost every college campus. Ken Doctor proposes  in "It's Time for a News Corps," that young journalists in training be paid $35,000 per year, and then be assigned positions with news media that wish to employ them. For a variety of reasons, it makes sense that a project of this sort would be a component of the successful AmeriCorps program, which is already working in communities across the country. Were this done, say 2,500 young journalists, the annual budget would be in the area of $90 million, including overhead. It strikes as as a win-win; we get more journalists covering our communities, and young journalists have a chance to gain valuable experience -- even at a time when the small dailies where they might have started are laying reporters off. After three yars, if the program proves to be a success, the "News AmeriCorps" could be expanded to work with as many as 5,000 young journalists. At this size, even extending the terms to two years, the cost would be around $350 million annually.

"Much as the Works Progress Administration of the New Deal era trained a generation of this country's greatest authors through its Federal Writers Project -- including Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, John Steinbeck, Richard Wright and Studs Terkel . we can easily imagine that a "News AmeriCorps" could produce the great investigative reporters, editors and Pulitzer Prize winners of the 21st century."

Finally, three researchers, Josh Stearns, Victor Pickard and Craig Aaron wrote in a FreePress.net report last fall, "Saving the News: Toward a National Journalism Strategy (at page 27): 

Given that Congress has voted to dramatically increase funding for AmeriCorps, an independent federal agency that aims to 'foster civic engagement through service and volunteering,' Eric Klinenberg of New York University has proposed earmarking some of these funds specifically for a program to train the next generation of local journalists. These “journalism fellows” would most likely be recent college graduates who would be trained to do multimedia reporting for outlets in their cities and towns. Such efforts may be done in partnership with local media organizations, and foundations could provide outlets for the content or office space."

Klinenberg notes (in a personal communication cited by the FreePress researchers: "The idea stems from a specific concern: that the federal stimulus and bailout programs are pumping billions of dollars into state and local governments (as well as the private sector) at the very moment local news organizations are eliminating their local political beat reporters. By all counts, statehouse and City Hall reporters are disappearing quickly, and thus far no one has emerged to replace them."

Added the FreePress researchers: "In a spirit similar to the 'Teach for America' program, the journalism fellows could step in as reporters. Our taxpayer dollars would likely be better spent if we had watchdogs on the ground covering government spending. While such a program could serve to educate the next generation of watchdogs, there are still nearly 20,000 journalists who have lost their jobs in the last year and a half. Perhaps these funds could also be used to provide multimedia training for laid-off journalists. The Poynter Institute has pioneered a series of trainings designed to do just that. Other similar efforts have been undertaken by NPR and the Knight Digital Media Center. This kind of program could be expanded to help veteran journalists learn new reporting skills as well as aid them in setting up new local journalism ventures."